Hello, CD friends, maybe I'm certifiable or just need a vacation but I finished a book I can't resist mentioning: Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period
(U. Chicago, 2001) by medieval literature scholar, Lawrence Clopper.
Clopper begins with the disarmingly candid admission that as a university student reading the Brome Abraham and Isaac
(14th century), he found it, well, dull. Why, then, he wondered, did it have a two hundred year performance history? In many ways, Clopper’s entire career has been an attempt to answer this question. Drama, Play, and Game
reviews, restates, and revises the work of the generation of scholars who found the role of medieval drama as taught in traditional British literary history unsatisfactory – an entire generation of scholars since the mid 1960s who have worked to show that medieval drama is more than just prelude to Shakespeare. We are talking about such works as the morality plays, Everyman
, the great north English biblical cycles from York, Chester, etc, and the dramas of East Anglia, such as Mary Magdalene
, The Play of the Sacrament
The traditional teaching is that drama died out with the fall of the Roman Empire but was reintroduced into western culture under the auspices of the Church. The liturgy grew to encompass elements recognizable as dramatic (role playing, gesture, symbolic use of space, etc) and spread from the interiors of the churches onto the front steps, then into the market places and onto pageant wagons that took biblical history into streets of cities like York and Chester in great festivals that performed Christian view of history from Genesis to Judgment day. During this process of growth, drama became not only larger and more sophisticated (the Castle of Perseverance
requires a cast of dozens and a staging space that can accommodate at least 4 scaffolds) but more secularized so that the morality plays of the later medieval period went beyond biblical narratives to secular topics. In this history, the study of medieval drama enables a better understanding of Shakespeare – the persistence of dramatic medieval elements such as way Iago resembles the Vice figure from a morality play, etc.
Contemporary scholarship throws most of that teaching out. Not only did the chronology of the texts not always support this evolutionary model but it seems counter-intuitive. Is it likely that great dramatic tradition would grow, as the model suggests, through primarily ecclesiastical initiative? Careful study of the available historical records in addition to the play texts themselves shows that the primary sponsors of the biblical history dramas were primarily secular organizations like guilds and cities rather than the Church, and in some cases the drama cycles were arenas in which secular authorities contested religious ones. For example, in the chapter, Civitas: Drama and the City
, lay vernacular drama, such as the passion plays and civic pageants of the north, grew not from clerical initiative but in contestation to ecclesiastical authorities attempts to suppress lay festive culture. In chapters like The Matter of These Plays
, Clopper shows that by even the civic biblical dramas which their overtly religious content (i.e. plays recreating Mary and Joseph story, the Annunciation, etc) espoused a lay version of religious doctrine which could sometimes be at odds with official Church doctrine.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Clopper’s discussion is his reassessment of the anti-theatrical bias of the medieval Church, evidenced by such documents as the fifteenth century Tretise of Miraclis Pleying
, which rails against the moral dangers of plays. How does the evolutionary model reconcile this anti-theatrical tradition with the toleration and even expansion of the vernacular drama during the same time period? Clopper suggests that the term for play, a scripted performance with roles, ludi
(a Latin term) had the same kind of semantic range as the modern term, “play” – which in addition to a scripted performance could also mean play as in “to play a game” or “to have fun.” Through extensive readings of source material, Clopper suggests that when authorities moved to suppress “plays” associated with saints days, they meant festive culture – things like church ales, wrestling matches, sporting events which were part of a saint day celebration. Think of a church fish fry but with liquor and cock fights.
Why would I so perverse as to consider Drama, Play, and Game
worth even mentioning here on CDf? Well, it is clearly written (not to be taken for granted in academic writing from English depts) though it does require at least a working knowledge of medieval English drama and a passing acquaintance with middle English. Also, it is potentially a landmark work of scholarship.
But, more to the point, Clopper’s critical questioning might suggest a series of questions that dance enthusiasts might find interesting. If you’ll permit me to invoke the field of Nutcracker studies, Jennifer Fisher has written about the texts and contexts of that perennial favorite (or curse), the Nutcracker ballet (in her book Nutcracker Nation -- my take on this can be found at http://www.criticaldance.com/features/2003/NutcrackerNation_20031128.html
). If Nutcracker fulfills some kind of social function, what is it? Is it a unifying function (i.e. the ballet is a seasonal ritual that brings together diverse segments of the community) or an exclusionary one (i.e. Nutcracker celebrates the elitism of the community of ballet lovers)? Does the Nutcracker ballet institution have a larger agenda? Is it important that Nutcracker’s growth into a mainstay of most ballet companies budgets seemed to have begun with the New York City Ballet broadcasts at the height of the Cold War? I certainly have no answers but I am always ready to ask questions.
Now, I actually do fun reading (*honest!*). I just got H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines
on Books-on-Tape and that's what I'm listening to on my daily commute.[/url]